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It's high time we honoured war dead as part of our story


Brian Donovan

Brian Donovan

Brian Donovan

My grandfather, Rickard Donovan, fought in World War I. There is nothing unusual in this; hundreds of thousands of other people in this country have a relative who fought in that "war to end all wars". What is extraordinary is the lack of interest, and the widespread ignorance about Ireland's part in that war.

People are at a loss to know how to remember or even commemorate, and what they should remember or commemorate.

Naturally, many people here have no desire to engage in the sort of glorification of imperial military engagements across the planet. But the fact remains that over 240,000 Irishmen fought in the war. Moreover, up to 49,000 of them died.

The sheer scale of this tragedy is hard to comprehend. These numbers are 10 times more than the casualties of the "troubles" that afflicted our island for 30 years. The extent of personal loss, the permanent scar left on families, was profound.

It is difficult to imagine. But it can only have been made worse by the state-sponsored amnesia that existed. It was not that the dead or injured didn't officially exist. They did, it's just the general view was that it was of no significance or relevance.

That's an awful way to treat the victims of this calamity. We have been paralysed in our treatment of the war by the fact they fought (mostly) in British uniform.

Given that Ireland was still part of the UK at the time, we should not be surprised.

The first time the Irish government officially marked the deaths of the war was in January 2005 when, at the War Memorial gardens in Islandbridge, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism John O'Donoghue launched a DVD publication by Eneclann of Ireland's War Memorial Records, a republication of the exceptionally rare eight-volume work, which documented those Irish soldiers who died.

The minister made two important points during the launch, which to this day reflect the government's general view.

Firstly, he maintained the fiction that the dead were mostly from the north, and that the government was trying to reach out to Unionist opinion by commemorating their dead.

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Secondly, he said that while he recognised their pain, his loyalty was to the men who were imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol following 1916. The two were treated as mutually exclusive.

At least 19,000 people from the 26 counties died in the war.

It is also a fallacy and utterly a-historical to posit WWI against the 1916 rebellion or the War of Independence that followed. In fact, the war was an important part of that story.

Not only was the campaign against conscription in Ireland in 1918 a key driver in the campaign for independence, many of the central military figures who fought for independence were veterans of WWI like Tom Barry or Emmet Dalton.

It is high time that Ireland starts to remember the dead of WWI as part of our story.

Perhaps we can best commemorate the Irish war dead by a public reflection of the horror of war and the danger when militarism is fused with nationalist ideology, or maybe our opposition to imperialism and the cost of Empire in human lives? English, German, French, Turkish, Indian, Armenian, Russian, African, American and Irish men were slaughtered in their millions. They deserve to be remembered.


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.